The Sage with Empty Hands

Art, Sport and Humanity series
Part 1: The Sage with Empty hands

(Note: The first draft of this text commenced in December 2020 during the second British national lockdown related to the global Covid-19 pandemic. In May 2021, alongside the research interests and the current challenging circumstances, I found this 'forgotten' piece and decided it is time to collect the thoughts and move towards the new text series now titled Art, Sport and Humanity.)

Karate Here [Touches Head].
Karate Here [Touches Heart].
Karate Never Here [Touches Gut]! Understand?

Demonstrating by the martial artist and mentor (Mr. Miyagi, a fictional supporting character played by Pat Morita), the tripartite 'touch' reflects without deviation to the human and city's soul which consists of reason, spirit and desire in the Republic. However, Plato attributes the unity of virtues to the co-existence of each part of the soul. In Benjamin Jowett's translated version of the Symposium, the Introduction reminds the book's theme as the 'passion of the reason':

The union of the greatest comprehension of knowledge and the burning intensity of love is a contradiction in nature, which may have existed in a far-off primaeval age in the mind of some Hebrew prophet or other Eastern sage, but has now become an imagination only.

While the philosopher 'being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant,' a sage would not love or be a philosopher as 'nor does any man who is wise seek after wisdom.'

An interesting point to observe is how East Asian martial arts were gradually (re)introduced into the modern Olympic Games and western culture. Despite the decision made by the 1963 IOC to absent from Mexico City 1968 Olympics, Judo initially debuted in 1964 Tokyo (with women participation much later since Barcelona in 1992), and Taekwondo has been onboard from Sydney 2000. Now, Karate sees its presence joined by the other official 66-sport categories for Tokyo this summer.

Neither social practice nor the economic or political benefits would set down the impossibility to embrace those 'distanced' and 'foreign' sports. In the late 19th century, Pierre de Coubertin was a historian and educator and enthusiastic amateur athlete. The triangulum of three practices brought his motivation to develop physical education and introduce sports activity to the French schooling system. Coubertin was equally looking for the renaissance of the Olympic Games in an 'international' context. His vision on sports events and competitions would eventually contribute as the present characteristics – whether essentially or partially – of the Olympic spirit:

L'important dans la vie, ce n'est point le triomphe, mais le combat. L'essentiel n'est pas d'avoir vaincu, mais de s'être bien battu.

Here, the idea to determine the critical action in life is not to win but to fight. And Coubertin's key beyond cultural convention for those fellow athletes is to have 'fought well' in lieu of searching the conquest. Both aspects correspond to the philosophical history established in the physical and spiritual forms of East Asian martial arts.

However, the internationalised Olympic family does have/need a dominant voice to restructure and shape participant behaviour in the sports contest. It implies the adoption of the game rules and customs, so every sport candidate – who wishes to be on the finalist, including Judo, Taekwondo and Karate – can be considered and accepted as an Olympic event.

We will not debate whether the etymology of 'kara·te' relates historically to 'Chinese hand' (唐手) or 'empty hand' (空手). For the consideration of non-experienced martial art reading, we borrow the phenomenal moment with the journey back to John Avildsen's The Karate Kid (1984), when Karate would have become a central martial art myth to the western audience over the past decades. The culture code prolonged from the The Karate Kid and its sequels in the comeback through the TV series 'Cobra Kai' for the new generations.

In the original film, the final scene led to the climax where the 'kid', Daniel-san, was involved in the contest of life. Before the battle commencing, a dialogue occurred between the apprentice and the sensei:

Daniel: All right, so what are the rules here?
Miyagi: Don't know. First time you, first time me.
Daniel: Well, I figured you knew about this stuff. I figured you went to these before...You told me you fought a lot.
Miyagi: For life, not for points.

What was at stake? In that particular moment, was the protagonist being 'thrown into the world' (Heidegger), or we might be able to put the symbolic laurels on those martial artists (here as karate-ka alongside judo-ka and taekwondo-in) who have been 'fighting' towards the modern Olympic Games? What and how the differences emerged between being a martial artist and an athlete? Or, what's the 'point(s)'?

In the world of cinema based in pop culture, the Narrative Arc offers conflicts as actionable incidents between the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). In contrast, the modernised competitive contests deliver the spectacle 'fighting' scenes via mass communication with the absence of the 'sage'. Now the 'voice' of the film-type narrator is replaced by the presenter through their voice of real-time interpretation. Either audio (e.g. radio) or video-related, the 'live' visuals would still have to be prioritised with the martial scenes. However, where is the sage who supposed to possess the wisdom?

Can the role of educator or sensei replace the sage? Suppose an instance from the familiar concept of practising martial arts is to situate 'spirit' before 'technique' (Funakoshi). In that case, the challenge undergoes the measurement itself when allocating the martial athletes under spotlights and camera lens. In fact, 'athletics' comes from Greek athlos, the signifiant term as 'combat'. To make the martial body and its combatant practice Olympian (in either ancient or modern sense), the success of Game(s) winning needs to be measurable and efficient, whereas the freedom of fight for physical and mental development in Martial Arts struggle for survival.

The exile (or intellectually hors-champ) of martial artists anchors the 'domestication of a military and scholarly type' (Foucault). Both Art and Sport turn the head away and left the spectacular lieu to a universal practising form: En garde! Light, Camera and Point! The Master is long gone, and the mass culture embraces the solitarily survived kind as the rebirth of Champion.




[◁◁ Project Schedule in May]
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[▶︎▶︎ Abstract: Sésame, ouvre-toi]